by Bob Sparrow
After a good night’s sleep, we wake up Tuesday and meet our guide, Humberto, at our hotel. Your guide can make or break your trip – Humberto made it, in spades! He is 54 years old, head of the Inca Trail Guide Association and has made nearly 1100 trips (yes, 1100!) up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; we felt fairly confident that we weren’t going to get lost. Aside from his technical skills, he had an engaging personality, and easy smile and a great sense of humor; he fit right in to our group.
Today we drive out of the city to our first stop, Moray. It is best described as an Incan agricultural laboratory. From the picture it looks like it’s just a hole in the ground with some circles dug out of it. It is that, but the location is well chosen for it topography and rain fall and the circles are intricately scribed at precise levels creating various microclimates so that a variety of vegetables can be planted to see which ones thrive best under which condition. Ingenious!
Our next stop is the salt mines. On the way we are surprised to see prickly pear cactus and agave lining the road – very desert-like. Humberto tells us that the road to the salt mines is “lined with tequila” and with the salt from the mines, all we’d need is a lime and we’d have the start of a great margarita!
The salt mines were originally created by the Incas and have been a source of salt and employment ever since. We were able to actually walk through the sections of salt and see how the natural salt water coming from inside the mountain collected and produced literally tons of salt each year.
We hiked about 5 miles down the hill to our van; I think it was Humberto’s way of giving us a little test run – we all did fine; it was mostly down hill and we were starting to get acclimated to the thin air. By late afternoon we were back at our hotel for a little rest before we went to dinner at a restaurant that Humberto had recommended. We had a glass of wine to celebrate starting the hike in the morning and to the fact that we would not have anymore wine for the next four days!
The Inca Trail – Day 1
Our ‘team’ consists of the four hikers, Patrick Michael, who is not only a hiking buddy and a neighbor, but a good friend, who reignited my interest in hiking when we hiked Mt. Whitney several years back. We have done numerous hikes together since then including Half Dome and the Himalayas. Steven Bernardy, who I just met while training for this hike, is a successful financial planner, who’s full of life and rarely at a loss for words – good hiking companion, as there is never a dull moment. Graydon Bernardy, Steven’s 22 year old son, is a recent graduate from the University of San Francisco and an intelligent and insightful young man; and me, AND our guide, Humberto, a cook, an assistant cook and 8 porters; so yes, a cast of 15 set out on Wednesday morning.
Today’s hike will be approximately 7-8 miles that are fairly level – actually there is no ‘level’ in the Andes – ‘fairly level’ just means not crazy up hill. Our porters and cooks take off a little after we do, but quickly pass us like we were standing still. We will see them about 3-4 hours later when they have set up our ‘meal tent’ and the ‘kitchen tent’, had lunch themselves, then cooked and served our lunch. Once we finish, we head out on the trail again, while they break down the tents, clean up the pot, pans, dishes, stove, pack them up and then we see them passing us on the trail again to set up for dinner. This is how it works for the whole trip, except when they get to the spot where we’re spending the night, they also sent up our sleeping tents and the ‘potty tent’. Patrick even saw a porter carrying a woman ‘piggyback’ up the trail – that’s above and beyond the call of duty! These guys are truly amazing athletes and just great people.
Due to the barren topography, low clouds and mist, there is not a lot of great sights along the trail, but it’s just as well, with our heads down, our brains oxygen-deprived and our mouths full of cocoa leaves, we probably couldn’t see anything even if there was anything to see. But the trail has history and it is a true hiking test. Oh, the cocoa leaves? They are offered to us to chew on, put in our tea or do with as we wish, as they help the body remain strong under stressful hiking conditions. These are the same leaves from which cocaine is made, and are against the law to grow or import into the U.S. The reality is they’re really safe and I could hardly feel the affect of them, except that one time I saw a psychedelic llama dancing with a lavender alpaca.
We cover about 7.5 miles before we reached our ‘home’ for the night, which is a two-man tent on the ground; our shower is a bowl of warm water and a paper towel and our bathroom is a small tent around a seat with a bag under it – not exactly the Ritz Carlton. Sleep, even after a long, hard day of hiking, comes begrudgingly if at all.
Next: The Inca Trail – Days 2-3